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BA/MA Program Alumni Profile and Spotlight: Amy Kessler

Renowned pension expert Amy Kessler '89, MA '90, still uses the lessons learned at Brandeis International Business School

Amy Kessler

Amy Kessler, BA/MA '90

At Brandeis International Business School (IBS), Amy Kessler did not learn all the answers. Instead, she graduated with even more valuable proficiencies: the expertise to ask relevant questions and the determination to probe until she discovers the ideal solution. Kessler, the senior vice president and head of longevity risk transfer at Prudential, earned her bachelor’s (1989) and master’s degrees (1990) in international economics and finance at Brandeis.

“At Brandeis, you learn to question until you understand and you learn to dig until you find insight,” Kessler says. “The education at Brandeis is meant to prepare you to find the right answer.”

Brandeis IBS’ small class sizes foster students’ commitment to exhaustive examination of business, financial and economic issues. The intimate classes nurture close relationships with faculty and also require students to search beyond the obvious for solutions.

“You end up in the kind of dialogue with your professors and fellow students in which a superficial response is not adequate,” she says.

Shortly after graduation while working at Lazard, one of the world’s leading financial advisory and asset management firms, Kessler was thrust into a situation that called on her to look beyond conventional solutions and investigate more deeply. As the financial adviser for the construction of the new Denver International Airport, she and her team had to devise a strategy to pay off $1 million a day to bond holders as the project faced prolonged delays.

“It was a challenging assignment, and I was never satisfied with a traditional approach,” she says. “I understood that circumstances were going to change every day, and I had to come in and figure out what to do next.”

Ultimately, she and her team succeeded in financing the delay, and the airport was able to refinance its debt after it opened because of the financial plan they developed. The transaction was selected as Institutional Investor’s Deal of the Year.

In 1995, Kessler moved to Bear Stearns, where she worked in debt capital markets. She moved up to be a principal at the investment bank and left just before it failed during the global financial crisis and recession in 2007. From there, she headed to London as global head of pension ALM at Swiss Re.

Kessler joined Prudential in 2009, and now heads the longevity risk transfer operation within the financial giant’s retirement services division.  She is also a senior member of the leadership team for Prudential’s market leading global pension risk transfer business. Since 2011, Kessler’s team has written more than $100 billion worth of business covering pension obligations in the U.S. and abroad. For this work, Prudential was named Reinsurer of the Year for the last three years by Insurance Risk and received AiCIO’s Industry Innovation Award in four of the last five years.

“If a pension fund is not comfortable retaining the risk of its obligations, it is our business to take on their asset risk and longevity risk,” she says. “We’re the biggest in the world and the best in the world.”

Throughout her career, Kessler has found herself calling on the lessons learned at Brandeis. In particular, she recalls her first economics class, taken with Professor Barney Schwalberg (“Wow, did he make the light bulbs go on!”); an economics of development course with Professor Anne Carter; and a graduate-level macroeconomics seminar with Peter Petri, Brandeis IBS’ founding and now interim dean, and the Carl J. Shapiro Professor of International Finance. Petri was also Kessler’s thesis adviser.

“I learned from them that market conditions change all the time because economic conditions change,” Kessler said. “As market conditions change, you have to adapt your strategies and ideas to succeed.”

At Brandeis IBS, she also found herself in a highly supportive environment that inspired her to work harder and set her goals higher.

“I received encouragement from my professors right from the start; they believed that I would do well,” she says. “That belief in my potential that I encountered every day was empowering. It was an early boost that has taken me much farther than I would ever have dared to hope. When I return to campus now, I see a new generation getting ready for their launch in life.”

-David Nathan